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An orgy of condemnation – cockfight at the UK Corral

August 15, 2011

I’ve been shouting at the television a lot this week; more than usual. I’m prone to this sort of behaviour but when as a direct consequence of such anger you almost cause a four-car-pile-up on the outskirts of Belfast because you felt it necessary to pull over suddenly and send an angry Twitter message in response to some particularly ill-informed comment on the radio, you know things have reached a critical stage. Time to take a step back. Calm the fuck down. And then… And then… start all over again. Round two. Come out screaming…

My anger has been directed at the media, it’s ignorant news anchors, and the duplicitous (or moronic) politicians and pundits that have been let loose in studios to pontificate about the rioting and looting in London and other English cities.

Initially I was mildly irritated by the ritual condemnation that was offered instead of analysis. It’s not that I was expecting anyone to welcome the riots but it was the competition that emerged between some politicians to see who’s condemnation was most wholehearted and fulsome – oh, look how immense and immeasurable my condemnation is compared to your shriveled contribution!

I found myself wondering whether any politician or pundit’s condemnation – whatever it’s huge, phallic proportions – could possible prevent a single mugging, spare one burnt out home, one shopkeeper’s business? I doubted it. But there they were, the Mafia of the Mediocre, jostling for airtime and trying to out-stare each other, with displays of middle class belligerence and finger-wagging while London burned. Their condemnation bordered on the self-congratulatory at times.

The thing is there is nothing ‘natural’ about this response. It’s entirely manufactured, even scripted. It works to establish a bias against genuine understanding and it does this by putting anyone who wants to consider the underlying causes of the riots on the defensive. As a tactic to wrong foot your political opponent, it is simple and sometimes stunningly effective.

It was deployed with great effect in the aftermath of 9/11 when the media would strive for ‘balance’ by inviting some US, hawkish, neo-con to debate with a mild-mannered liberal who had reservations about bombing Iraq. Within the first 10-15 seconds of the discussion the neo-con would accuse the liberal of being ‘anti-American’ and then for the short-time that the liberal had left to put forward his/her own position, they’d waste it, defending themselves against the charge of ‘anti-Americanism’ instead.

This week we’ve seen a similar media strategy being applied by those who really dread that people might look under the skirts of modern Britain and begin to think about the broader context with in which the riots took place. Watch the clip of Ken Livingstone on the BBC’s Newsnight (8 August 2011).

The interviewer, Gavin Esler, asks Livingstone why the riots happened, inviting analysis. But when Livingstone suggests that one of the underlying causes of the riots might be that a generation of young people are confronted with the most depressing prospects in 100 years, Esler quickly puts it to the former Mayor of London that he is ‘making excuses’ for the troublemakers.

Why would Ken Livingstone, a democratic politician, seek to ‘excuse’ looters? Why would Esler even feel that was a pertinent question to put to Livingstone? Weren’t there much more interesting questions that Esler could have asked, perhaps about Labour’s own record in office tackling poverty and inequality? In fact, what Esler does instead is simply echo the Conservative party line.

Indeed, another guest, Shaun Bailey, a Conservative candidate, comes in then to accuse Livingstone of electioneering, rejecting any link between the riots and the cuts and goes onto ‘advise’ the former Mayor that he needs to be careful that he isn’t seen to be excusing the looters.

The same tactic is used by Michael Gove on Newsnight (10 August 2011) in an a bad tempered exchange with Harriet Harman, chaired by Gavin Esler again. Towards the end of the discussion an apparently ‘appalled’ Gove accuses Harman of offering excuses and ‘relativisng justifications’ for the riots. His performative ire eventually builds to a crescendo of pompous indignation and he fatuously challenges Harman to ‘condemn what went on’.

Even more extraordinary was the interview on BBC News 24, with Darcus Howe. When the veteran black activist and writer says that he is not surprised that riots have taken place, this is somehow construed by the interviewer as suggesting that he might actually condone the violence. “You say you’re not shocked. Does this mean you condone what happened?”

Only someone really dumb could view such sound political foresight as somehow offering a defence of the violence: in fact, isn’t it a pity the government hadn’t Howe’s farsightedness. Instead we have a government presiding over massive job losses, cuts to welfare and deteriorating educational opportunities for the young, as well as implementing police cut-backs, and they didn’t see trouble coming!

Remarkable also is the accusation thrown at Darcus Howe towards the end of the interview that he’d been rioter himself in the past. His response is characteristically and justifiably blunt. The interviewer is ‘idiotic’.

I’m not saying that the ‘correct’ understanding of recent events is being discriminated against. I don’t necessarily agree with the various analysis offered by Livingstone or Harman or Howe. I think Howe calls it wrong when he describes events in England last week as an ‘insurrection’; and Harman should be discomfited when Gove draws our attention to the fact that Labour were in power during the formative years of the young rioters’ lives. What I am trying to say is that any meaningful discussion about the riots is being hampered.

What I think is interesting about the above examples is the routine way in which the Right, with the connivence of the media, have tried to police this debate and restrict it by working to discredit contributors from the democratic Left as somehow apologists for criminality, which there is no evidence any of them are. In fact, can you honestly conceive of any circumstances under which Harriet Harman would support the sort of violent actions we’ve just seen in English cities? No, neither can I. And neither can Michael Gove but it didn’t stop him behaving like a self-righteous, pompous fucking arsehole suggesting that she might.

Democratic politics is competitive. That means politicians from different parties should be expected to argue over policy and each other’s records. But the insistence on ritualistic displays of condemnation got in the way of real political debate last week and did nothing to either quell the violence or develop understanding of what was happening. It was disingenuous. It was sleekit. And it was used by politicians trying to shirk their own responsibilities, while a thoughtless, lazy media gave it free-reign and frequently joined in.

Ultimately I’d rather listen to the competing policies of politicians’ than the ritualistic competition in condemnation.

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